Wyoming couple aims to preserve the Old West

Wyoming residents Dan and Kathy Watson, a husband-wife duo known in the Single Action Shooting Society as Vaquero Dan and Wyoming Schoolmarm, man the SASS table at Family Day at the Range. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

BRIDGEVILLE — They dress the part, portraying cowboys and cowgirls like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, right down to the gun holsters, ammo belts and Western hats.

As members of the Single Action Shooting Society, Wyoming residents Dan and Kathy Watson share a common interest in preserving the history of the Old West and competitive shooting.

In reality, SASS is a “fantasy” shooting sport that, according to its website, requires members to dress in 1880s Old West costumes and “to strap on six-guns to help Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and others make the western frontier safe for God-fearin’ families.”

“Anything from the Civil War up through ‘The Rifleman’ … and Gene Autry,” says Ms. Watson.

“Everybody has their own niche to what they like to do,” said Mr. Watson. “Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes. That’s what makes the world go around.”

SASS, whose membership has reached 90,000 worldwide, also seeks to protect its members’ Second Amendment rights.

Collection samples of single-action weaponry owned by the Watsons and other SASS members were on display at Family Day at the Range, staged Aug. 29 at the Bridgeville Rifle and Pistol Club.

Mr. Watson, 73, has been a member of SASS for 20 years. He was introduced to the group through “some friends of ours that know I like shooting. I have been an old horseman, horses and cowboys basically all my life. I got hooked. The rest is history.”

Ms. Watson, 65, joined the SASS circle the year after.

“I have been shooting 19 years,” she said. “Dan did it for a year, and I went down and watched and helped, and then started doing it, too. About 20% of the shooters are women.”

Locally, they compete at the Bridgeville Rifle and Pistol Club and at another club in Sudlersville, Maryland. In competition, they have nicknames: Mr. Watson is “Vaquero Dan,” and Ms. Watson is “Wyoming Schoolmarm.”

Their passion for competition and camaraderie has taken them to major shooting venues across the United States.

“We have traveled as far south as Florida, as far north to New England and out to New Mexico,” Mr. Watson said.

New Mexico is home to the Single Action Shooting Society’s premier cowboy action shooting range known as Founders Ranch, a rustic 480-acre facility in the rolling hills east of Albuquerque. It is the stage for some of SASS’ biggest events and educational programs.

Successful shooters don’t head home with huge monetary prizes. Instead, treasured belt buckles, pins, trophies — and of course, bragging rights — are rewards for top winners.

“No money or no pink Cadillac,” said Mr. Watson. “You pay an entry fee, mind you, but you don’t get any money back. But it’s all for the fun.”

Three years ago, at the international event in New Mexico, the Wyoming couple made their mark among scores of competitors.

“They had 700 competitors from all over the world. We shot for three days. She and I both in our respective categories placed in the Top 10,” said Mr. Watson. “Plus, I had what they call a ‘clean match,’ meaning I had no misses all three days of shooting.”

Competition is based on time. There are steel targets and different scenarios.

“When you go ‘bang,’ you want to hear a ‘clang’ on the other end,” said Mr. Watson. “If not, your spotter is going to hold up a finger for a miss.”

Each negative occurrence adds more time to the competitor’s raw time.

“There are minor occurrences to major occurrences. A miss is five seconds, minor safety procedural is 10 seconds,” Mr. Watson said. “You may drop an unloaded firearm. That is stage disqualification. If you drop a loaded firearm, that is a match disqualification. That has happened to competitors on the very first stage of the match to the very last stage. They forfeited. They can’t shoot anymore, but you can stay and work and help the ‘posse.’ Groups are called posses, everything keeping in the Western theme. You’ve got to dress the part.”

During a competition, shooters are grouped by age.

“A lot of it is age-based. So us so-called young whippersnappers aren’t shooting against the real young whippersnappers, with possibly better eyesight and faster reflexes,” said Mr. Watson. “But some of us old geezers can hang in there with them.”

Foul weather doesn’t deter them either.

“We’ve shot in snow, rain, wind, heat. They only time we don’t shoot is if there is lightning. In 20 years that we have done this, we’ve only had to stop one time because of lightning,” said Mr. Watson.

“And we travel,” said Ms. Watson. “We have a good time.”